on the death of Dr. Charles Townes

By most accounts, Dr. Charles Townes was a remarkable man. Co-recipient of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work developing the maser, and then the laser, and THEN he went on to have a 40 year long career in astronomy. That career was distinguished by more pioneering work on interferometry, which (as far as I would consider it) was capped off by his discovery that Betelgeuse, the red supergiant in the left arm of Orion, is shrinking.

For the past few weeks I’ve talked about how some processes in space are actually happening on human timescales, but this one would be a case of stellar evolution (that thing where most stages take millions or billions of years) happening on the timescale of a human life – theoretically, that means Betelgeuse is in the last stages of its life, and about to explode.

…unless, as Townes suggests in that National Geographic article, it’s just in a phase where it’ll rapidly bounce in and out. That’s plausible; it happens elsewhere in astronomy, with classes of stars called Cepheids, and Mira variables, and quite honestly every supergiant seems to be some frothing and pulsing ball of fury anyway. At any rate, the star is not dimming, so whatever is happening to it isn’t changing the amount of energy coming out of the star.

Charles Townes made that discovery at the age of 92. He died last week at the age of 99. According to the various obituaries floating around, he was a regular fixture at the University of California at Berkeley until last year… Charles Townes was proof that you don’t always slow down with age.

The closest I ever came to meeting Dr. Townes was that a few years ago I toured Mount Wilson Observatory in California, which hosted the Berkeley ISI interferometer* that was used to make that discovery about Betelgeuse. I don’t think Dr. Townes was there that day (because of course he was still making treks up to the tops of mountains), but his assistant showed us around the place. ISI was built out of tractor trailers, which meant that it was theoretically mobile. It of course used lasers for the necessary precision alignments.

At some point I was going to work up the nerve to email him and find out if he was the first person to use a laser to play with a cat. Ok, it was stupid, but it was one of those idle dinnertime conversations where I thought “I could actually find out the answer to this, because lasers are actually pretty recent”.
Seriously, where would modern technology be without lasers? CDs, DVDs, Blu-Ray, barcode scanners, modern machining tools, diamond melting, various types of surgeries, the Chunnel, electronica concerts, laser levels, sniper gunsights… I mean, we’d have many of those things, but they just wouldn’t be the same.

Dr. Townes’ discoveries shaped a lot of our modern life, if you think about it.

*Actually, Mount Wilson has been the site of many stellar interferometers – the original 1920s Michelson interferometer that measured the diameter of Betelgeuse for the first time, the United States Naval Observatory’s Mark III interferometer, and currently, the CHARA array


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